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Brother Colm O'Connell in front of St Patrick's High School in Iten, Kenya. Photo by: REUTERS

Irish missionary behind Kenya's running mecca

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Brother Colm O'Connell in front of St Patrick's High School in Iten, Kenya. Photo by: REUTERS

A small Kenyan village in the Great Rift Valley has become a production line of running talent thanks to an Irish missionary.

Brother Colm O'Connell started Iten's first athletics training camp in 1989. The 63-year-old is the coach to 800m world record holder David Rudisha and has trained 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medalists during his 36 years in the small village, which lies 8,000 feet above sea level in western Kenya's Rift Valley.

"When I came there were no athletes training around the road. There were no camps. There were no other coaches. There was nothing, just a school where I was a teacher and I coached the students," O'Connell told Reuters.

The most recent Olympic champion from O'Connell's youth camp is Brimin Kipruto, the Beijing Games winner in the 3,000m steeplechase. Marathon runner Edna Kiplagat and women's 5,000 and 10,000m world champion Vivian Cheruiyot are favorites to win golds in London.

According to Reuters, Kenyan runners have enjoyed unprecedented levels of success over the last few years with elite athletes from all over the world traveling to Iten to train with the Kenyan champions.

However,  O'Connell said he never intended to become a running coach when her arrived in the region and that the praise coming his way for Iten's transformation is not fair.

"I just happen to be in an area where athletics was the talent. I happen to be in a sport which is not very expensive; you don't need anything to be a runner. Even as young kids they run barefoot - you don't even need a pair of shoes," he said, from his home within the grounds of St Patrick's High School for boys.

O'Connell pointed out that any one of the teenage boys attending the school could be a future star.

"There is an element of trial and error. Don't think that everybody I take is a David Rudisha. You take 20 and you get one (champion)," he said.

For St Patrick's students, the reminder of O'Connell's success is everywhere. The school plants a tree in honor of each student who goes on to win a world championship title. Iten locals joke that St Patrick's grounds will soon become a forest.

During the 2011 Daegu world championships, 10 of the 17 Kenyan medalists had been coached by O'Connell in Iten, mostly as teenagers in his training camp for juniors.

Eight students of his coaching school will represent Kenya in the London Games. However, O'Connell does not consider himself an athletics expert and added that he refuses to follow textbook rules.

"It's an attitude, it's an approach, it's the way you deal with an athlete. It's the environment in which you bring them, that's what is important. It's not handing them a program or standing on the side with a whistle and a watch," he said.

O'Connell said he has been able to adapt to the African way of life.

"I dumped all my western baggage when I came of how you think, how you want things to happen, what you believe in. I put all those aside and enter into the spirit of what it means in a rural village in the highlands of western Kenya."

O'Connell said he has no intention of going to the Olympic Games.

"I'm not going. I have no interest. I came to Iten many years ago as a young person to work among youth and that is still my priority.

"It's not going to the Olympics, it's not coaching superstars. If they become a superstar, it's ok. If they don't, not a problem."

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